Used for ill; used for good: a century of collecting data on race in South Africa
Over the last twenty years, a general understanding has evolved among sociologists and philosophers that censuses (in particular, among all the data collected by a modern state) and the categories that they impose serve to reproduce and consolidate the state’s preferred social ordering and hierarchy. Some, for example Hacking (1990; 1991; 1999) argue that the capacity to collect and collate such data is one of the defining characteristics of a thoroughly modern state. Other authors approach the same issue from different angles, but all have as a common theme the power of large screeds of statistics simultaneously both to anonymize and to individualize people in a way that allows the state to understand better the nature of its citizenry. As Anderson (1991, p. 166) notes, ‘the fiction of the census is that everyone is in it, and that everyone has one and only one extremely clear place’ therein. Scott (1998, pp. 7677) sees the same phenomena in different terms:
Officials of the modern state are, of necessity, at least one step and often several steps removed from the society they are charged with governing. They assess the life of their society by a series of typifications that are always some distance from the full reality these abstractions are meant to capture. . . . State simplifications such as maps, censuses, cadastral lists, and standard units of measurement represent techniques for grasping a large and complex reality.